In the virtual reviews from the virtual critics that judge your virtual game company's output in Game Dev Tycoon, depth is never a point of concern. Well, it is here.
Everything in the eyes of Informed Gamer (and other fake media outlets) is good or bad. While this lack of critical insight is one of the largest flaws in Game Dev Tycoon, it speaks volumes about the title's design.
Game Dev Tycoon is an occasionally clever idea that offers some perspective on what it's like to work in the game industry, but it fails to dig deeper as a game, settling somewhere between a parody of studio culture and a cute history lesson.
Game Dev Tycoon (PC, Mac)
Developer: Greenheart Games
Publisher: Greenheart Games
Released: April 28, 2013
Game Dev Tycoon covers our gaming history from garage PC development to the PlaySystem 4, but the title itself owes much of its design, and lack of thoroughness, to Facebook and mobile gaming. From title to concept, it's impossible for the game to escape comparison to Kairosoft's Game Dev Story. Even in execution, the differences between the two don't become clear until a couple hours into Tycoon. Thankfully, these differences work in the title's favor, providing elegant and smart solutions to problems presented in Game Dev Story.
As the title suggests, Game Dev Tycoon is a business simulation in the style of Microprose series like Railroad Tycoon and RollerCoaster Tycoon. The business you run is a game studio, so the scale is much smaller. Once you create an avatar, the game starts you off in a garage with a commercial PC in the '70s. Depending on the time frame you chose (which can go from 25 years to 35+), you will eventually end up developing games for next-gen consoles in a highrise if you found success throughout the years.
Game Dev Tycoon does a great job of introducing new elements that keep each era of development as memorable as the offbeat hardware that we so often forget -- the Game Gears, cancelled Nintendo add-ons of yesteryear. Yet, these elements don't come quickly enough, making for a rather dry and monotonous early game.
Game development is divided into several stages: funding/company management, development, and marketing. At the start, income will come primarily from contract work which will also net research points. Research can be invested in unlocking new game topics, technology, and leveling up staff's abilities. Development itself is divided into several stages.
Once you have decided a name, topic, genre, and console platform, the player is prompted with three screens of development factors. Each screen has a slider with three different elements, for example world design, sound, and graphics. You can equalize all elements or focus on one. Only through gaming savvy (e.g., invest heavily in dialogue for RPG and adventure games) and trial-and-error will success be found.
As the player goes from PC development to buying licenses to create games for Ninvento and Vega consoles, new challenges are introduced in the form of managing a staff, dedicating money to researching new technology, and following current market trends. The game even has its own E3 convention; the bigger your booth, the more hype you'll generate for your current project. Hype is an invaluable resource, even if the game doesn't do a good job of letting you know how much it will impact sales.
Game Dev Tycoon does a poor job of surfacing any feedback to the player. There are no focus groups or beta testers, and the fake reviews offer little to no insight. Everything is good or bad. Why did my $10.5 million comedy action-RPG fail? Who knows. Sure, it's common sense not to make a sports-adventure hybrid or use outdated tech on modern consoles, but isn't it also common sense that delivering a timely sequel after a review said "Can't wait for the sequel" should be met with success?
Though Game Dev Tycoon takes influence from our gaming history, its rules don't always follow our reality. This wouldn't be such a problem if it put any effort into conveying its special alternate reality. Instead, the player is left to stumble in the dark. Each of my successes felt like dumb luck or exploiting a known formula for success. Maybe I could run Ubisoft, after all?
The sound and visuals are low-rent, leaning on social gaming gimmickry, like bubbles that pop with the frequency of popcorn as you earn design and technology points for your game in development. It all works, in the way that a manipulative Facebook game has proven to work, but it's hardly as inspired or charming as Game Dev Story's pixel art and SNES-era soundtrack. The best thing I can say is that the production elements neither get in the way or make much of an impression.
Half of the fun, however, is in seeing the game's reinterpretation of popular game consoles and posters in the office reflecting the blockbuster games of the time. I only wish there was more of this type of stuff and opportunities to interact and customize your work space.
When Game Dev Story introduced the idea of a game development sim to Japan in '97 and then the West in 2010, it was a novel concept that made overlooking its flaws easier. While Game Dev Tycoon is a superior experience with a better interface for its platform, it still suffers from the same pitfalls of monotony and lack of player feedback that Game Dev Story suffered from.
While I appreciate the perspective Game Dev Tycoon has given me on game development, from indie studios in debt to huge studios juggling multiple projects, it was never the game's sim elements that had me returning. It offers a pleasant walk down memory lane of past consoles and technology, but that's about it.